The Power, Magic, and Wonder of House-made Syrups 


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At Discourse Coffee in Milwaukee, every drink is a sensory experience. A recent signature drink, To All A Good Night, uses a house-made syrup base with plum, umeboshi, and mulled spice. The syrup is paired with a slightly over-stepped black tea to introduce a subtle bitterness to counter the sweet syrup. Topped with rosemary-infused oat cream and pine powder, Discourse serves this unique drink in a smoked-out glass with a bruleed plum.

The experimental menu at Discourse rotates every six weeks, with four new drinks joining the shop’s regular lineup of coffee classics. Many of these drinks are built around original house-made syrups that use surprising and inventive flavor combinations: smoked and oaked orange, raspberry and angelica, charred lemon and elderflower, and more.

House-made syrups allow cafes to play with flavor and create distinct signature drinks, ones you cannot get anywhere else. However, these in-house creations take time, creativity, and quality ingredients to come to life. Formulating house-made syrups isn’t just mixing liquid sugar with a bunch of ingredients and hoping for the best; instead, it is an intentional process that, when done well, creates an unforgettable experience for guests. 

Making Things Memorable

Discourse opened in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, in 2017 before moving to Milwaukee, where owner Ryan Castelaz operates two locations. Over the years, the shop has become known for its house-made syrups and inventive coffee drinks. “A lot of people aren’t used to having a visceral experience with coffee,” says Castelaz. “Maybe it’s delicious, or it’s from that shop they like, but [coffee] is just the thing that fits into their lives.”

The ultimate goal at Discourse is to craft unique drinks that are memorable and evoke strong reactions from customers. However, the team doesn’t develop new syrups solely based on flavor. Instead, they start the process with storytelling. “Things get interesting when you start with what you want a drink to say or what you want to drink to make somebody feel,” says Castelaz.

When thoughtfully made with creativity, house-made syrups can create powerful memories, but they can also conjure them. Castelaz says the most touching feedback he’s received was from a customer who ordered the Corn Star, a drink made with homemade vegan corn caramel (a syrup made of caramelized corn milk sugar, corn juice, and buttered corn powder). After taking a sip, the guest shared that it reminded him of being 15 and in the corn fields with his grandma. 

“I almost cried. That’s the whole point of what we do—try to tell stories that people can relate to so it creates these moments of whimsy and nostalgia,” he says. “If something I’ve given you brings you somewhere else, that is the ultimate feedback.”

Taste of the Seasons

In 2021, Broken Board Coffee opened up in Focus Boardshop, a local skateboarding spot that’s been part of the Madison, Wisconsin, community for nearly twenty years. Tucked away in the back of the store, Broken Board had made a name for itself with creative espresso drinks made using house-made syrups.

The space is cozy, nestled behind racks of clothes and boards, with just a few stools around the counter for customers. Behind the bar, you can usually find owner Jared Kist working on new flavor combinations. Kist makes all the shop’s syrups in-house, including menu staples like vanilla, lavender, maple, and cardamom and syrups for his seasonal rotating signature drinks. 

Kist likes to pull inspiration from the world of cocktails for Broken Board’s seasonal offerings. “I was a bartender for years and got into cocktails. That whole world has so much that we can draw from in terms of coffee,” says Kist.

But he also likes to play with unconventional seasonal flavors, like the blood orange latte, a seasonal offering that’s been on the menu for the past three winters. According to Kist, there are aspects of seasonality that we sometimes overlook. “Whether we realize it or not, oranges are a winter fruit, and blood oranges are one of the few oranges that follow that seasonality,” he says. 

For the blood orange syrup, Kist uses the juice and peels of the fruit, along with lightly toasted spices like coriander, cardamom, and nutmeg to enhance the citrus. “The spices are just there to add some complexity—it’s all about the blood orange,” he says. 

Another seasonal winter latte on the menu is the saffron latte, featuring a syrup infused with Middle Eastern spices and flavors: saffron, vanilla, cardamom, orange zest, and rose water. “It’s not really tied to a season, but it has that seasonal taste to me,” says Kist. “The spices are warming and interesting in a hot drink.”

Beyond the Basics

Kist particularly enjoys making herbal syrups because he says they complement coffee without fading into the background or overwhelming it. “Herbs don’t disappear, and they don’t overpower coffee either. At the right level, they’re just balanced,” he says. His all-time favorite syrup infused sage with Japanese cherry wood smoke tea, cinnamon, and sea salt. 

Perfecting syrup recipes takes time. Kist has been working on a sweet corn drink for three years and is still working towards getting the recipe just right. “It’s a hard one, but it’s going to happen at some point,” he says. 

Another project Kist has been working on is a plum espresso tonic—an idea that’s been on his mind for months. Initially, he thought about making a syrup combining plum and bay leaves, but he held off for several months until the plum season. Eventually, plums came into season, but surprisingly, when he made the syrup, he found that while the flavor was intense, it didn’t translate well with coffee. “The plum wasn’t coming through, and the bay leaf was super subtle,” says Kist. 

Kist ditched the bay leaf and turned to other plum-based desserts for inspiration, eventually trying out a combination of plum and balsamic vinegar. It took some time, experimenting with balsamic reductions and adding vanilla, but he ultimately landed on the final result: a plum balsamic syrup with vanilla and rosemary. “It probably took a dozen iterations to get that one,” he says. “The only ingredient I started with that I was still using was the plum.”

Spreading the Word

At Broken Board, Kist’s house-made syrups have helped spread the word about the cafe and bring in visitors from outside Madison. One of the most popular drinks is an espresso lemonade served in the summer. “We have people coming in from all over town because they heard about it or say it on Instagram,” Kist says. He makes this drink with lemon cordial, a syrup made from lemon juice, citric acid, and tartaric acid, and then adds espresso and lemon bitters. 

Kist even had a regular customer who would come to Broken Board multiple times a week just for the espresso lemonade. Once fall hit and the menu changed, she stopped. “She lives out of town, so I don’t think that’s a loss,” Kist says. “She made a lot of effort to come in as much as possible to get [the espresso lemonade] in the summer.”

Castelaz also credits homemade syrups for Discourse’s success. “We simply would not exist without it. It’s not even a benefit for the business—it is the business,” he says. In the early days of Discourse, they operated in a 600-square-foot space with no foot traffic. Customers often had trouble finding the shop. Castelaz quickly realized they needed more than just good coffee to bring people in. 

“It’s not enough for people to go through all this effort just to find us,” says Castelaz, reflecting on Discourse’s time in Sister Bay and how signature drinks helped the small shop stand out. “We opened a coffee shop doing experimental, out-there things in a town of 600 people in the middle of nowhere. And we get by serving drinks like this.”

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Haley Greene

Haley Greene is a freelance writer based in Honolulu, Hawaii. She frequently writes about food, coffee, and wellness. Connect with her at

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